Why are State Laws Different About Alcohol?

There sometimes seems to be no rhyme or reason to state alcohol laws, and some of them seem downright strange. Who knew you can’t start a tab at a bar in Iowa, or that the Encyclopedia Brittanica is banned in Texas because it includes a recipe for homemade beer?

As odd and random as some of the laws may seem, there actually are some reasons for the variance from state to state, albeit not always good ones. Although you have to admit that the law against giving a moose a drink in Alaska does seem to make a lot of sense.

What types of different state alcohol laws are there?

Most state laws involve the times that alcohol can be purchased. Laws preventing late drinking are common, such as laws stating that alcohol will only be sold between 7 a.m. and 2 a.m. Some states have stricter laws on Sundays. One of the more interesting state laws is in Alaska, where alcohol cannot be sold on election days until the polls close, a law designed to keep people from electing a moose to Congress, no doubt.

There are also some limitations on alcohol sales by the type of alcohol. Some states may restrict the sale of distilled spirits during certain times, but not beer or wine. Other states may put stricter restrictions on the sale of alcohol in grocery stores, perhaps not allowing the sales of distilled spirits there or limiting the hours.

Enforcement of driving under the influence (DUI) varies from state to state, too. While the .08 percent blood alcohol limit is the national standard for someone to be considered under the influence (drunk), different states may apply enhanced penalties at higher blood alcohol amounts. For instance, Illinois adds additional penalties at .20 percent, Arkansas at .18, and some states have no enhanced penalties at all for higher blood alcohol level.

Why are DUI laws different from state to state?

Some of the variance in DUI laws is attributable to the frequency of DUI accidents in the state. Obviously, if there are a lot of drunk driving accidents in a state, particularly serious or fatal ones, the laws will be stricter. There is also a general tendency for states that have stricter alcohol laws in general to have stricter DUI laws.

How did Prohibition affect state alcohol laws?

Prohibition was the law of the land from 1920 to 1933 and it outlawed the production, sale, and transportation of alcohol. Most people view the law as a colossal failure that gave rise to an era of organized crime, not to mention a number of really silly-looking outfits and dances, particularly in major metropolitan areas like Chicago and New York.

In fact, Prohibition was so unpopular that the gangs and criminals who provided illegal alcohol to people during this time became heroes and the police and government became villains in the eyes of many people. It’s no wonder that this experience made the federal government a little skittish about creating sweeping alcohol legislation, choosing instead to push it off to the states.

How has the minimum legal drinking age affected state alcohol laws?

Prior to 1988, states had even more control over their alcohol laws. Before that year, states could actually set their own minimum age limits for drinking. As a result, certain states, like Wisconsin, became known for their lower drinking age, which drew in 18-year-olds from neighboring states to buy alcohol—if you’re in your mid-forties or older and lived in Illinois, you know all about “the run.”

The spirit of these old state alcohol laws carried over to a certain extent. Again, using Wisconsin as an example, that state currently allows minors to drink alcohol as long as they are supervised by their parent or guardian. There was also a general tendency for states that once allowed a younger drinking age to be a bit more lenient in drinking laws in general.

How does religion affect state alcohol laws?

When you get into the “Bible Belt” states of the South, somewhere between “Yankee Go Home”, South Carolina and “You’re Not From Around Here, Are You Boy”, Arkansas, you are more likely to find stricter alcohol laws. For example, in Texas the time limit on selling alcohol is relatively early, with all sales prohibited after midnight. Another example of a religious influence on the law—alcohol may not be sold on Christmas Day in Georgia.

Many Bible Belt states also have “Dry Counties” within them that do not allow the sale of alcohol at all. In Alabama, 26 of their 67 counties do not allow the possession or consumption of alcohol. These dry counties gave rise to the favorite redneck hobby of all time—moonshining.

There are some things that the federal government is pretty hands-on about; you know, important things like busting people for stealing postage stamps. When it comes to alcohol, they leave a lot of the law-making up to the states and as a result, there’s quite a bit of variance from state to state in alcohol laws.